'Ni'lin more about business than land'

Border Police commander: Hundreds of Palestinians cross over from village to work in Israel illegally.

state-religion survey 224 (photo credit: )
state-religion survey 224
(photo credit: )
"The issue in Ni'lin is less about land than it is about business," says Border Police company commander Ram Kahu, as he gazes out over the valley between the Palestinian village and the nearby Israeli town of Hashmonaim. "Every day, hundreds of Palestinians cross over from Ni'lin to work in Israel illegally, and every night they come back." According to Kahu, those workers come to Ni'lin from Ramallah, Jenin and Nablus, and have given rise to a sort of cottage industry within the village, as the security barrier's construction makes it harder and harder for Palestinians to find ways to circumvent checkpoints and enter into Israel. "There's coffee houses and rooms for rent over there," he says as he points across the valley into Ni'lin. "They stay there overnight and come into Israel for work. But once this wall is finished, all of those businesses will be gone. The issue has more to do with the loss of work than the loss of land." But participants in daily protests attempting to halt the barrier's construction - which have resulted in two Palestinian deaths this month - reject these assertions. These Palestinians, Israelis and international activists decry the barrier's positioning not in terms of its effect on Ni'lin's economy, but rather because they see it simply as an Israeli land grab. The Israeli government undertook the barrier's construction in the wake of the second intifida, in which weekly, if not daily infiltrations of Palestinian terrorists resulted in suicide bombings, shooting attacks and other acts of violence against Israeli civilians. While Kahu agrees that some Palestinian land is inevitably going to end up on the Israeli side of the wall, he pointed to the path that has been cleared to accommodate it as proof that the majority of Ni'lin's land will in fact stay in Ni'lin. "We've even gone out of our way to restore the olive trees on their side," he said, pointing to the white trunks of olive trees on the Palestinian side that have been transplanted there during the construction work. But Palestinians strongly rejected Kahu's statements, saying the wall is in fact an ongoing policy to rob the Palestinians of their land and agricultural livelihood. "The Israeli plan is to take more and more land for their settlements," said Salah Hawaje, a Ni'lin resident. "It's already difficult for families from Ni'lin to move around the checkpoints they've set up, and 120 families have lost all of their farmland completely." While it was unclear if Hawaje was speaking about the current barrier construction or the overall loss of Ni'lin lands since 1948, he said that 2500 dunams of Ni'lin's land are being taken as part of the barrier's construction. Hawaje also dismissed the idea that Ni'lin residents were profiting from illegal Palestinian labor. "There are four factories inside Ni'lin for people to work in," he said. "Maybe some workers are crossing over to Israel, but they don't have to." Still, Kahu maintained that every morning, at least 400 workers cross the valley into Israel to be picked up by contractors in Modi'in or Jerusalem where they work in construction or other manual labor jobs. "I've seen it with my own eyes," he said. "They come in for the day, with sacks of food for lunch, and then they go back at night." Sarit Michaeli, a spokeswoman for the human rights group B'Tselem, said that she believes the reality most likely lies somewhere in between. "From the army's point of view, it's certainly much easier to believe that the opposition to the wall is economical," she said. "And I don't doubt that there is an economical component. But I do doubt that the large-scale struggle in the area is only about business." Michaeli also said that the two were essentially intertwined. "Land has become the final source of income for many people," she said. "Agriculture has become a fall back for people as there are less and less opportunities for them to work in Israel." But as Kahu stood over the valley looking across to Ni'lin, he said the ongoing clashes between protesters and the border police will come to an end in the area, regardless. "In eight months the work here will be finished," he said. "And then the story will be over. The whole area will be quiet."